The Anti-expected: Lavar Munroe

Selected for the prestigious 2015 Venice Biennale — the art world’s major international event — Bahamian Lavar Munroe creates mixed-media works that explore tricky ideas of “difference.” Nicole Smythe-Johnson finds out more

Bahamian artist Lavar Munro. Photograph courtesy Lavar MunroeSomething Strange This Way Comes (2014), mixed media on cut canvas, 74 x 96 inches. Photograph courtesy Lavar MunroeFairy Godmother (2014), mixed media on cut canvas, 98 x 102 inches. Photograph courtesy Lavar MunroeOn Deaf Ears (2013), mixed media on cut canvas, 46 x 72 inches. Photograph courtesy Lavar MunroeTo Protect and Serve (2012), mixed media on cut canvas, 67 x 105 inches. Photograph courtesy Lavar MunroeExhibit (2015), mixed media on cut canvas, 91 x 110 inches. Photograph courtesy Lavar Munroe

In the weeks leading up to the opening of the Venice Biennale on 9 May, the inboxes and newsfeeds of the international art world have been inundated with information. The world’s largest and oldest contemporary art exhibition is making unprecedented moves in its fifty-sixth edition, towards a more genuinely global contemporary art scene. In Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, “la Biennale” has found its first African artistic director. And the main exhibition, All the World’s Futures, is in keeping with Enwezor’s longstanding curatorial project, expanding contemporary art beyond its Euro-American comfort zone to include more African and diaspora art.

Eighty-eight of the 136 artists selected by Enwezor will be first-time Venice exhibitors, and according to the black arts and culture magazine Culture Type more than a quarter of the artists are African or of African descent. There’s also a record number of national pavilions this year, increasing from 2013’s seventy-seven to eighty-nine.

The Caribbean is taking a piece of the pie, with Grenada presenting its first unofficial national pavilion, and the inclusion of Bahamian artist Lavar Munroe in All the World’s Futures. It is not the first time a Caribbean artist will be included in the main exhibition (and several Caribbean nations have presented national pavilions over the decades), but the list is a very short one. Personally, I know only of Cuban Wifredo Lam in 1976.

Asked how he feels about participating in the Biennale, Munroe — currently based in North Carolina — is casual. “I don’t get excited too easily,” he says. “I’m happy to be a part of it, but I’m not head over heels. I think I’m more excited about being in Venice than being in the Venice Biennale.”

Three paintings from Munroe’s Mono-Myth and Human Zoo series will appear in the exhibition. These mixed media works offer few clues to their maker’s identity. Munroe himself thinks his work looks like a woman could have made it; and his almost decorative, meticulously layered images, sewn and cut surfaces, and bubble-gum palette could well read as feminine. His primary preoccupations — mythology, and more recently nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century freak shows — could link to the Caribbean and the racial politics that shaped the region, but Munroe’s focus is more deliberately universal.

In fact, he insists on it. “My conversation is not about the Caribbean,” he says. It’s not that the Nassau-born and -raised artist denies his roots, or their impact on his artistic development. He freely admits: “I’m a Bahamian first, definitely” — but always with the caveat that “the conversation isn’t from the Bahamas.”

Thinking of Munroe’s Human Zoo series, I ask him if he is thinking of the much-discussed case of Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus — an African woman who was exhibited across Europe as a symbol of racial difference in the early nineteenth century. “That name brings with it the notion of the Human Zoo,” he responds, “but there were Native Americans and Asians and Africans and Alaskans — you could go on and on. It was not only Saartjie Baartman. It was pretty much the Europeans, the colonial empires of the time, collecting people from all over the world and showing the other. They were not just only black African people.”

Munroe’s references are equally diverse. “I’m looking at old stuff, ethnographic illustrations, freak show posters and banners. I’m also looking at Attic Greek vases, and most recently silent films. With the silent films, I take screenshots, and I get these compositions that are really nice. So I use that as a starting point, but it’s not like I’m looking at a photograph and painting it. I’m more interested in the compositional strategies.”

He explains that his work seeks to evade expectations. “A lot of Caribbean and African-American artists, you expect them to do certain things,” he says. “I expect to see many flowers in work coming from the Caribbean, I expect to see African-American artists painting something about slavery, or painting something with a black figure in it. Those things are very expected, and that’s something that I’ve always been anti: anti-expected.”

 

This evasiveness is connected to another key theme in Munroe’s practice, that of the artist as trickster. From Anansi in the Caribbean and West Africa to Coyote in the American Southwest and the Monkey King in China, the trickster is a cross-cultural mythological archetype. Munroe likes to maintain what he calls “the veil” between himself and his audience: “it’s not really hiding my identity, but I would like — and it happens — a situation where my work is on display and if you don’t know me, you don’t know where I’m from, you don’t know my gender, my race. That kind of thing really excites me.”

Trickster aside, the genesis of Munroe’s practice remains in his uncle’s Junkanoo shack in Nassau. “My uncle is an artist,” he explains. “Not the type of artist I am — he does sign-making and before that he was a designer, he had a Junkanoo shack. So growing up I was always in that space. I looked up to him, and I would watch him design and colour and cut paper and stuff. So it started that way, but from there I kind of grew on my own.”

His research-guided artistic practice also reflects those beginnings. “With [my uncle] and this Junkanoo thing, research was always a part of what they did. There were always books lying around. There were reading books, but they were mostly pictorial. And I would take those books and browse through them continuously, just to see the images. A lot of the things that they dealt with in [Junkanoo] were themes like Ancient Egypt, so the house would be full of books with Egyptian cave drawings, or about China . . . Either that or about the Bible, another kind of mythology. So that’s the type of thing I was exposed to,” he adds, “and when you’re exposed to something at a young age, it’s always there.”

In 2013, while pursuing an MFA degree at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, Munroe returned to mythology, this time from the perspective of the American anthropologist Joseph Campbell, well known for his influential book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Out of this reading came Munroe’s Mono-Myth, a body of work including sculpture, painting, drawing, and some performance. His latest body of work, The Human Zoo, develops the trajectory, looking at human difference, and the way difference itself is mythologised. “We dislike being a spectacle, but we like being voyeurs,” Munroe says. “We like to see difference. We are curious about difference, and a lot of difference, until you see it, it’s like a myth.”

Although I can’t think of a more Caribbean theme than difference, I must admit that in this increasingly globalised world, difference increasingly shapes even the most homogeneous societies. So maybe Munroe is right, and his conversation is not coming from the Caribbean — maybe it just comes through.

 

The orginal biennial

Founded in 1895, and marking its 120th anniversary this year, the Venice Biennale is recognised internationally as the contemporary art world’s most prestigious event. Its formula — major curated exhibitions staged every other year, featuring both established stars and exciting up-and-comers — has been widely copied, but La Biennale di Venezia is both the original and the gold standard. Its headquarters, in a park near the eastern end of the insular city, includes permanent pavilions assigned to specific countries, and a central hall housing an exhibition curated by the Biennale’s artistic director. Over 300,000 visitors attend the event, which runs during the summer and autumn months (in 2015, from 9 May to 22 November). Hundreds of unofficial shows are staged across the city to coincide with the official Biennale.

Lavar Munroe is the second Bahamian artist featured at the Venice Biennale in recent years. In 2013, the Bahamas organised its first-ever national pavilion, with works by US-based Tavares Strachan.

  • susan mains

    Thanks for the mention but a correction please. Grenada is an official national pavilion for the biennale di Venezia. Susan Mains curator.